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National Transit Equity Day honors Rosa Parks

On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks protested segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest triggered a 381-day bus boycott by some 40,000 Black residents, finally ending when the Supreme Court found the city’s segregation laws unconstitutional.

More than 50 years later, the campaign for equity continues in transportation and other sectors of society. America’s automobile-centered culture has reshaped our cities and landscapes. Americans drive more miles each year, essentially canceling out gains in fuel efficiency. Those without cars often struggle to carry out basic activities such as getting to work, school, health services and grocery stores. Those who depend on transit often ride fossil-fueled buses with high greenhouse gas emissions. Negative effects of climate change fall on all of us, but disproportionately on the most disadvantaged among us.

To highlight the intersection of transit and equity, Rosa Parks’s birthday, Feb. 4, is recognized as Transit Equity Day across the U.S.

The Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now will recognize Parks’ birthday by hosting a Zoom presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, “State of Transit Equity in Oregon and the Rogue Valley.” Visit socan.eco/ashland-climate-action/ to learn more and register for the program.

Moderated by Tonia Moro, chair of the Rogue Valley Transportation District Board, program panelists include RVTD rider Stacy Matern; Linda Peterson Adams, chair, city of Ashland Transportation Commission; Paige West, associate planner, RVTD; Karyn C. Criswell, ODOT Public Transportation Division administrator; and Amanda Pietz, director, ODOT Climate Office.

RVTD is reserving a front seat for Ms. Parks all week on all buses, says West. Residents can show appreciation for Ms. Parks Feb. 4 by waving signs (or just waving) from sidewalks along bus routes. Ashland residents are encouraged to show support from a social distance along the No. 10 route from noon to 1 p.m.

Ashland’s high housing costs mean many employees must commute from elsewhere.

“It’s very difficult to hire in Ashland, and it’s been exacerbated by the fire,” says Andrew Card, owner of Masala Bistro & Bar and Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar. “We need to make Ashland more accessible from Medford, Central Point and Phoenix.”

Development of Ashland’s “Transit Triangle,” which will link affordable housing to public transportation, is a step in the right direction, says City Councilor Gina DuQuenne. “When we think about building an equitable Ashland, we need to be inclusive of what that means,” she asserts. “Clean transportation and clean air are definitely part of that.”

Transportation emissions are chief culprits in climate change, DuQuenne explains. “The future is electric. We need to start moving in that direction.”

Sara Wright, director of the Oregon Environmental Council Transportation Program, agrees. Our current system centers on vehicles and highway expansion to increase vehicle capacity, which is neither equitable nor sustainable. Comparing it to a matching grant, she notes, “You only get the full functionality of the system if you bring your own resources to the table. You have to be physically and legally able to drive. You have to have money to pay for a car, gas and repairs. If you don’t have those resources, you don’t have the full freedom of the system.”

While policymakers balk at the cost of public transit, and of upgrading to electric, Wright sees this as faulty logic. “We can’t afford the current system,” she says. “We’re perpetuating a system conceived in the 1950s. It’s incredibly wasteful of time, money and space.”

Transportation for America estimates that it costs $24,000 a year on average to maintain a lane-mile of highway — a significant bill that keeps coming due, well into the future.

“Spending an equivalent amount to expand bus service instead would provide substantial benefits by making it possible for individuals without a car to affordably access jobs,” says Ashland Transportation Commission Chair Linda Peterson Adams. “Adding electric buses or rail provides even greater benefit by also reducing emissions. Adding more riders who would otherwise drive their own cars multiplies the benefits even further.”

While we must prioritize serving historically marginalized populations, such as low-income residents, older adults and people with disabilities, our transit systems need to move to center stage as we ramp up our response to climate change, says Wright.

“Municipalities and transit agencies need to work together,” she says. “Transit agencies can’t do that planning on their own. We need to re-center how we look at transportation. What will have the best outcomes for climate and equity?”

Lorrie Kaplan is chair of the Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now. She can be reached at ACAPSpotlight@socan.eco.